Endure | Proper 23

2 Timothy 2:8-15

8 Remember Jesus Christ, who was raised from the dead and descended from David. This is my good news. 9 This is the reason I’m suffering to the point that I’m in prison like a common criminal. But God’s word cannot be imprisoned. 10 This is why I endure everything for the sake of those who are chosen by God so that they too may experience salvation in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. 11 This saying is reliable:

“If we have died together, we will also live together.

12 If we endure, we will also rule together.

If we deny him, he will also deny us.

13 If we are disloyal, he stays faithful” because he can’t be anything else than what he is.

14 Remind them of these things and warn them in the sight of God not to engage in battles over words that aren’t helpful and only destroy those who hear them. 15 Make an effort to present yourself to God as a tried-and-true worker, who doesn’t need to be ashamed but is one who interprets the message of truth correctly. (CEB)

Endure

This part of Second Timothy reminds us that faith and faithfulness are not always easy. Our belief in Christianity, itself, is not always easy. The calling we have as followers of Jesus Christ is not always easy.

I think we modern—and more comfortable—Christians can sometimes forget that even the most prominent women and men of faith who carried the Gospel message of Jesus Christ in the early centuries of the church suffered hardships, torture, and even death because of it. Christian women like Perpetua and Felicity died in arenas when wild animals were set upon them. Christian men like Paul and Peter were beheaded and crucified. All of these were imprisoned before they were killed.

Christians in the United States typically aren’t facing imprisonment or death for our faith, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t real threats to our faith. Usually, those threats attack our faith as individuals, not our faith as a whole community. For Timothy, however, what he faced might have been a little of both. What we can glean from the letters to him is that his ministry at Ephesus had grown more complex. Questions were, apparently, being asked by members of his congregation.

Paul acknowledges that Timothy deserved to receive a salary for his ministry, which is something Paul never had (c.f. 1 Timothy 5:17-18). There’s also a hint that Timothy had members of an extended family to provide for, if not a nuclear family as well. We learn that Timothy had some personal health concerns regarding his stomach (c.f. 1 Timothy 5:23). Maybe the stress of ministry was getting to him and he developed an ulcer. Whatever the specific problems might have been, Timothy was facing difficulties.

Not to mention the fact that Timothy’s mentor was in prison. If one of my mentors was in prison, I kind of wonder if I’d continue to claim her or him as my mentor, or if I’d try to distance myself from the person. The combination of these matters had to be upsetting for Timothy. Paul’s imprisonment, as well as the other troubling hardships, might have made the temptation to quit look enticing. Why bother with the difficulty? Why keep struggling for this gospel, this good news, when suffering came along with it? Why did suffering have to be part of the deal?

I have thought about quitting ministry more than once across the span of my 16 years of appointed ministry. Professional ministry isn’t easy. In fact, it can be downright suffocating at times. I’ve described those difficult times as feeling as though I’m being nibbled to death by ducks. My ministry has included seasons of joy and seasons of hardship. I’ve had to learn that I cannot be all things to all people. I cannot possibly meet every individual’s personal expectations of who and what a pastor ought to be. At most, I can only be myself, and I can only serve God to the best of my ability. Perhaps my own experience of hardship mirrored Timothy’s to some degree.

It’s not only pastors who face hardships. Any pastor who would suggest such a thing isn’t a very good pastor. The challenge to all Christian people to hold fast to faithfulness in Second Timothy is based on the very problem of human hardship and suffering. Experiences of hardship, suffering, abuse, and shame can temp us to lose confidence in the Christian story, to reject the Christians calling, and finally to deny Christ Jesus as Lord and Savior and God. Faith, itself, is a very real difficulty for many people of faith—even a contradiction to rational minds.

I can’t tell you how many times a crisis of hardship or suffering that has happened to me, or happened within my circle of family and friends, or even somewhere else in the world, has left me wondering at God’s apparent silence and questioning my faith. When people experience suffering or profound hardship, my heart hurts for them and I wonder, where is God in this?

When I experience hardship or when I suffer, I can begin to ask the same question. The answer I have to believe—the answer my faith gives me—is that God is right in the middle of it with me and with others who experience hardship. But that truth of our faith is easy to forget in the moment of suffering.

So, the author—who identifies himself as Paul—writes to Timothy: “Remember.”

That word, remember, is scattered across the pages of the Bible, and it causes us to pause, if for only a moment, so that we can piece together who we are and from where we have come. To re-member something is to put it back together after our memory has fallen apart or failed us. The call to remember is a call back to the holy, even in moments or in lengthy seasons when the burdens and hardships of life feel overwhelming.

Remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy” (Exodus 20:8 CEB).

Remember the LORD your God!” (Deuteronomy 8:18 CEB).

“LORD, I remember your name at nighttime, and I keep your Instruction” (Psalm 119:55 CEB).

“In this way we remember the Lord Jesus’ words: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:35 CEB).

“So remember what you received and heard. Hold on to it and change your hearts and lives” (Revelation 3:3 CEB).

“Do this to remember me” (1 Corinthians 11:24 CEB).

Paul, the mentor, implores Timothy to remember Jesus Christ because, sometimes, we can forget what is central to our faith. Even in the midst of our personal hardships and crises, “Remember Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 2:8 CEB).

Contrary to the belief of some, Christ Jesus did not come to save us from all hardship and suffering. The story of Jesus—which is a story of suffering, hardship, faithfulness, and salvation—really becomes the story of each individual Christian. The cross, itself, doesn’t mean that Jesus took all our suffering upon himself so that we don’t have to experience any, ever. Rather, the cross reminds us that God understands human suffering—even terribly unjust human suffering—and is with is in our suffering. Paul’s endurance through his trials became a model for subsequent Christian generations for the building up of our faith and our character.

For Paul, his suffering became a sanctifying process through which he saw himself more deeply connected to Christ in Christ’s suffering for us. Suffering, in this sense, is not masochism. It is never merely accepting or celebrating our pain. Rather, through our experience of grace, even our suffering has the potential to be transformed into ministry. Despite his imprisonment and the shame that went with it for himself and others, Paul bids us to remember that though he is chained, the good news of Jesus Christ is not. The hardships which he suffers, he endures for the sake of those who are chosen by God, “so that they too may experience salvation in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Timothy 2:10 CEB).

Our suffering is one of the many ways in which we can identify with the Son of God who became human, lived with us, and suffered as we suffer so that God could more perfectly identify with us. The way we endure our suffering—whether we succumb or overcome or simply endure—can serve as an example to others of what faith in Christ entails.

 “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead.” The Christian story does not end with hardship. In Jesus Christ, we have the promise of God for something more.

“Remember Jesus Christ, who was raised from the dead and descended from David” (2 Timothy 2:8 CEB). Not only is there the promise of something more in Jesus—a promise of a future—there is a lineage that connects God to humanity across the span of time.

Stuff happens in every community, even in Christian community, that is more about tearing down than building up. When things like that do happen, when people “engage in battles over words that aren’t helpful and only destroy those who hear them” (2 Timothy 2:14 CEB), it’s takes our attention from that central thing. It’s difficult to remember Jesus when people are arguing over things that really are trivial in the grand scheme of Christian life and faithfulness.

When we forget to listen to the living Word of God, we can give in to wrangling over semantics. Today, we’re presenting our giving cards to God in worship. [8:15] We’re also participating [10:30] We’ve also participated [!!] in a discussion about our congregation’s future. Sometimes even things like a stewardship campaign or setting goals can be discouraging. The stewardship campaign might not end up as successful as we’d like. Examining and imagining possibilities for our future probably won’t solve all of the problems we face as a church.

We still need to do these things because they’re important. Yet, the writer of Second Timothy calls us to remember what is most important. “Remember Jesus Christ, who was raised from the dead and descended from David” (2 Timothy 2:8 CEB). The author’s thought on the matter seems to be that, if we get this one thing right, then all of the other matters will fall into place.

Because, whatever our battle-over-words-of-the-day might be, what is at stake in the Word of God is dying and living. “If we have died together, we will also live together. If we endure, we will also rule together. If we deny him, he will also deny us. If we are disloyal, he stays faithful because he can’t be anything else than what he is” (2 Timothy 2:11-13 CEB).

How do we stay faithful when so many other matters demand our attention? How do we keep the stresses and burdens and hardships of life from leading us to a point where we deny Jesus?

One way—one powerful way—might be to remember. Remember Jesus Christ, who was raised from the dead after he experienced suffering and hardship and death. Remember Jesus Christ, the Word of God who became a human being and experienced our human hardships first-hand.

How do we remain faithful to Jesus Christ who has been faithful to us in every way?

We remember, we endure, and we work at it every day. “Make an effort to present yourself to God as a tried-and-true worker, who doesn’t need to be ashamed but is one who interprets the message of truth correctly” (2 Timothy 2:15 CEB). The beauty of Christian community is that we don’t do any of this alone. We’re on this journey of faith together. And together, our faith is stronger than it could ever be alone.

So, I thank God for you. I thank God for each of you: for your examples of faithfulness, and generosity; your examples of love and care for each other; your examples of forgiveness and endurance. You are the church. Together, we are the church. In the midst of hardships that inevitably come to individuals and communities alike, if we can still remember Jesus Christ, then we will endure.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

First United Methodist Church, Mount Vernon, Indiana; Sunday, 13 October 2019, 8:15 & 10:30 a.m.

Advertisements

Rekindle | Proper 22

2 Timothy 1:1-14

1 From Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by God’s will, to promote the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus. 2 To Timothy, my dear child. Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

3 I’m grateful to God, whom I serve with a good conscience as my ancestors did. I constantly remember you in my prayers day and night. 4 When I remember your tears, I long to see you so that I can be filled with happiness. 5 I’m reminded of your authentic faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice. I’m sure that this faith is also inside you. 6 Because of this, I’m reminding you to revive God’s gift that is in you through the laying on of my hands. 7 God didn’t give us a spirit that is timid but one that is powerful, loving, and self-controlled.

8 So don’t be ashamed of the testimony about the Lord or of me, his prisoner. Instead, share the suffering for the good news, depending on God’s power. 9 God is the one who saved and called us with a holy calling. This wasn’t based on what we have done, but it was based on his own purpose and grace that he gave us in Christ Jesus before time began. 10 Now his grace is revealed through the appearance of our savior, Christ Jesus. He destroyed death and brought life and immortality into clear focus through the good news. 11 I was appointed a messenger, apostle, and teacher of this good news. 12 This is also why I’m suffering the way I do, but I’m not ashamed. I know the one in whom I’ve placed my trust. I’m convinced that God is powerful enough to protect what he has placed in my trust until that day. 13 Hold on to the pattern of sound teaching that you heard from me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14 Protect this good thing that has been placed in your trust through the Holy Spirit who lives in us. (CEB)

Rekindle

The tone of 2 Timothy sounds as if Paul knew he was at the end of his life, and so the letter serves as encouragement to Timothy as one who would carry on his work. Whether it was written by Paul or not—and there is some scholarly debate about that—it’s one of the most personal letters in the New Testament. It’s concerned about the faithfulness of an individual Christian’s life. I think that theme is incredibly importance for us. When we read this letter, we can easily imagine Paul encouraging us to be faithful, to grow, and to build up the gift of God within us. When we read it, we also might notice several interesting things that Paul mentions.

First, Paul speaks of the worship of God and of faith as something that can be handed down from parent to child. He says, “I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day.” Then he says, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.” Paul’s words to Timothy speak to the importance of family in developing, building, and fostering the Christian faith and the worship of God. When the family is a family of faith, then faith can thrive in the family. Paul worships as his ancestors worshipped, and Timothy’s own faith lived first in his grandmother and mother.

I know that this is true for me, and I’m sure it’s true for many of you. I hope it becomes a truth for my own children as well. My grandparents didn’t go to church when they were first married because my Grandpa wouldn’t go. They moved from Detroit, Michigan, to Rockport, Indiana, and then over to Evansville. When they got to Evansville with their children, my Grandma told my Grandpa, I’m taking the kids to church somewhere.

She had gone to church as a child at Utility Methodist Episcopal Church in Hancock County, Kentucky, and she felt the need to take her family to church and give them a foundation in the faith. So, she started going to Central Methodist Episcopal Church at the corner of Franklin and Mary streets. Eventually, Grandpa started going there too. My Mother, aunts, uncles, and cousins all grew up in that church. My faith first lived in my grandmother Anna and in my mother Gloria, and it now it lives in me. How many of us can trace the development of our own faith through our families?

What this means for me as a parent is that if I want my children to hold fast to the Christian faith when they are grown, I need to foster their faith and teach them how to worship God now. It isn’t something that I’ll choose to neglect by making the excuse that I want them to be able to choose for themselves when they get older. They’ll make a choice when they get older whether I’ve fostered them in the faith or not.

The deeper issue is whether or not I’m providing a strong foundation for my children to be able to have a sincere faith in the future. For me to do that, I have to continue to develop and strengthen my own faith. Faith thrives in the family, and parents have a part to play in passing faith down to their children. Even the foundation we provide isn’t a guarantee for our kids’ faith in the future. When they’re old enough, they’ll make their own decisions about faith. But I, as a parent, want to exemplify my faith to them as much as I can because I want them to experience the love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness of God the way I’ve experienced it.

Then Paul charges Timothy with a reminder. He says, “I’m reminding you to revive God’s gift that is in you through the laying on of my hands. God didn’t give us a spirit that is timid but one that is powerful, loving, and self-controlled.” The Greek word that is translated as rekindle or revive means fan into flame. And Paul’s reminder to Timothy tells us that this is something that every Christian needs to be reminded to do. Just like a bonfire, the gift of God within us can begin to falter if we don’t feed it properly to keep it fueled and blazing.

Or, like in the video, we can simply neglect our Christian spiritual growth and stay in kindergarten. Paul reminds Timothy—and all of us—to feed the fire of our Christian life and move beyond ourselves.

This gift of God, which is the power of the Holy Spirit, is placed within each of us through the laying on of hands. But someone might object saying, but no one ever laid hands on me. I’m not ordained. If you have never been baptized, then you’re probably correct in that objection. But every person who has been baptized has had hands laid upon them, and the Holy Spirit invoked over them as we were baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Baptism is our ordination into the Priesthood of All Believers, and someone’s hands were laid upon each of us who have been baptized, not to mention the fact that the Holy Spirit of God came upon us in our baptism and touched the whole of our being by marking us as belonging to God.

This gift of God within us can become choked out in many ways: when the cares of the world overcome us, when we choose to stop feeding our spirit, or by simply not using the gift of God at all and instead choosing to leave it on the shelf of our soul to gather dust. The fire begins to fade. The flame cools down to the point that only embers remain. It is even possible for the flame to be extinguished completely so that nothing remains but lifeless coals. It is a danger that every Christian lives with, which is why Paul reminds Timothy—and us—to feed that fire, fan those embers to flame, rekindle the living fire of the Holy Spirit that lives within each of us through the laying on of hands.

We feed our body several times a day, but how often do we feed our soul? Just like our body requires daily sustenance and exercise in order to remain strong and viable, so does our soul. Our body consumes physical food in order to stay healthy and strong, and our soul needs to be fed with spiritual food in order to remain healthy and strong. But what kind of food does our spirit eat, if you want to put it in those terms? It is God’s grace that feeds us spiritually. It is being touched with God’s presence and power—which is one way of describing what grace is—that the gift of God within us is sustained and fanned from ember to flame to conflagration.

God’s grace is the nourishment our souls require, and it’s readily available for us to have at any given moment to help us fan to flame the gift of God within us. There are many means of grace: channels through which we receive the grace of God that is freely given and readily available. John Wesley named a few of them as Baptism, Holy Communion, Family and Private Prayer, Public Worship, Searching the Scriptures, Fasting, and Christian Conferencing. Every time we participate in one of these or other spiritual disciplines such as Generosity, our souls are put in touch with God, and fed with grace.

We need to rekindle the gift of God and put it to use, not keep it safely tucked away where no one will ever encounter it. Paul says, “for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” Our Christian faith is not just something that we have…and keep…and hide, but our faith, our gift of God’s salvation, is something that we live out into the world. It is for our benefit, and for the benefit of the world around us. Our faith lived out is a grace for us and a means of grace for the world.

Then Paul continues, “Do not be ashamed, then of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God.” You see, if Paul wrote this letter, then he was writing it from a prison cell, and many of his fellow Christians had abandoned him because they were ashamed to be associated with someone in prison. Maybe they saw Paul’s imprisonment as a kind of defeat or failure. The gospel message that Paul preached was a little embarrassing. I mean, have you ever really thought about what we Christians believe?

We believe that a young, unwed teenage girl got pregnant, and the excuse she gave for herself was, ‘God did this to me’, and people believed her. Then she gave birth to God’s child. This child grew up and lived an absolutely perfect life, but he rebelled against his own religious authorities to the point that he was arrested, convicted, and executed by the government authorities. Then, he rose from the dead, hung out with people for forty days, before ascending to heaven. And furthermore, we believe that he’s coming back someday to bring God’s Dominion fully upon the earth. That about sums it up, don’t you think?

Paul says to us, “Do not be ashamed.” Then, he goes into a short description of his understanding of the Good News. God saved us and called us with a holy calling not because we did anything to deserve it, but because that’s the way God planned things out from the beginning as a way of revealing God’s grace and plan to the world. We have this grace through Jesus Christ, and it has always been there, but only now in Christ Jesus’ appearance has it been revealed. Jesus destroyed death and has brought to light life and immortality through this strange and largely unexpected Good News.

And Paul says, “This is the gospel for which I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust.” This is the gospel for which we also have been appointed as heralds and messengers and teachers and proclaimers. Do you believe in this Good News?

If we do believe it, then we can’t hold it inside of ourselves. We can’t be too ashamed or frightened to share it with others or feel too content to never give it growth. God didn’t give us a spirit of cowardice, but a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

And if we do believe in this gospel, then Paul has one more bit of advice for us. “Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.” The fire of our faith, this gift of God that lives in us, is a rare and precious treasure. Guard it and protect it by making sure that it continues to live and grow in you. Fire is catching. It’s kind of contagious. When it burns, it can catch other things on fire, too. Fire will either spread or it’ll die. Rekindle the gift of God that is in you—fan it to flame—so that everyone you encounter is able to catch the same fire.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

The Good Fight | Proper 21

1 Timothy 6:6-19

6 Actually, godliness is a great source of profit when it is combined with being happy with what you already have. 7 We didn’t bring anything into the world and so we can’t take anything out of it: 8 we’ll be happy with food and clothing. 9 But people who are trying to get rich fall into temptation. They are trapped by many stupid and harmful passions that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Some have wandered away from the faith and have impaled themselves with a lot of pain because they made money their goal.

11 But as for you, man of God, run away from all these things. Instead, pursue righteousness, holy living, faithfulness, love, endurance, and gentleness. 12 Compete in the good fight of faith. Grab hold of eternal life—you were called to it, and you made a good confession of it in the presence of many witnesses. 13 I command you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and Christ Jesus, who made the good confession when testifying before Pontius Pilate. 14 Obey this order without fault or failure until the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 The timing of this appearance is revealed by God alone, who is the blessed and only master, the King of kings and Lord of lords. 16 He alone has immortality and lives in light that no one can come near. No human being has ever seen or is able to see him. Honor and eternal power belong to him. Amen.

17 Tell people who are rich at this time not to become egotistical and not to place their hope on their finances, which are uncertain. Instead, they need to hope in God, who richly provides everything for our enjoyment. 18 Tell them to do good, to be rich in the good things they do, to be generous, and to share with others. 19 When they do these things, they will save a treasure for themselves that is a good foundation for the future. That way they can take hold of what is truly life. (CEB)

The Good Fight

On this Sunday, which is Proper 21 or the 26th Week of Ordinary Time, we’re just over two-thirds of the way through the Season after Pentecost, which is also known as Ordinary Time. Easter was twenty-three Sundays ago. Advent begins nine Sundays from now, which means that Christmas is only 13 weeks away. (I think I just heard the child in each of us squeal with delight while the adult in us gasped in panic).

The season of Ordinary Time gets its name, not because it’s ordinary and mundane, but because it’s counted using ordinal numbers. Yet, there is something mundane about this longest-of-seasons in the Christian Year. It’s a long lull of regular-old-Sundays that is bracketed between the high feasts of Easter and Pentecost and the Advent-Christmas celebrations just around the corner. Even the sanctuary is ordinary. It seems like the paraments and vestments have been green forever. Attendance hasn’t exactly been stellar. Giving over the summer has largely bottomed out. Coming to worship in this extended season can feel mundane or common and, at times, even rote or lackluster.

In this way, I think the church’s liturgical calendar mirrors life. Life is not all celebration. Sometimes life is just… ordinary. In fact, most of life is ordinary. So, it’s appropriate that, in the ordinary time of the church, we negotiate these mundane matters of the stuff-of-life. After all, we’re each still learning how to live in response to our baptism, and we’re each still learning how we might fully participate with God in the ordinary things of life.

Because God is in the ordinary stuff of life. That’s why our sacrament of holy communion uses elements as simple as bread and juice, and baptism uses something as common as water. It’s just ordinary stuff—stuff we can eat, drink, and wash in—but it’s stuff that we need to live. Ordinary, yet necessary.

Some Biblical scholars speculate that this text is reminding Timothy of the confession he made at his baptism when it states, “Grab hold of eternal life—you were called to it, and you made a good confession of it in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Timothy 6:12 CEB). Baptism is the sign and seal that declares we have given our life to following the ways of God, and that we have grabbed hold of the eternal life to which God calls every person.

So, to what kind of life does God call the baptized to live? What does it mean to live our baptism?

We often think of eternal life as some future thing that we receive after we die. It’s something for which we hope. We hope to make the cut and gain entrance through the pearly gates. But we’re told to grab hold of eternal life. Maybe, eternal life can—to some degree—be taken hold of now. Jesus declared that the kingdom of God has come near (c.f. Matthew 4:17, Mark 1:15). In Jesus and the Holy Spirit, God’s life-giving presence has been established in the world, now. God’s presence shapes our perspective on life and on the stuff of life. Things are passing. Things are fleeting. But God is not and, because of God’s presence with us, neither are we.

One of the matters the author of the letter addresses with Timothy is false teaching. Verse 5 says that certain teachers thought that godliness was a way to earn a profit. Maybe these people were the Joel Osteens, Benny Hinns, and Robert Tiltons of their day who preach a prosperity gospel and think that the practice of their faith is a way to financial success. Whatever their false teachings were, the author of 1 Timothy takes them to task. Godliness—which is faithful living—is profitable, but not in the way the false teachers think.

Faithful living is not about gaining wealth. I cringed when I recently heard a pastor say, “I found a way to monetize everything I do.” If money is the the goal, then it’s an impoverished life.

I’ve heard people misquote the statement in 1 Timothy 6:10 more times than I’ve heard it quoted correctly. Oftentimes, it comes out of people’s mouth as Money is the root of all evil. But money is not the root of all evil. Money is an inanimate object that, in and of itself, is incapable of evil. The text says, “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10a CEB). Not the root of all evil, but a lot of different kinds of evil. Not money, itself, but where and how we hold money in our heart and mind—it’s if we have money rooted within us that it becomes the root of all kinds of evil. Money, itself, is neither good nor bad. It’s the love of money that results in many and various kinds of evil.

The love of money can plunge people into ruin and destruction. And, it’s important to note that the word people in verse 9 is general and inclusive. The author says that it’s not only to those who are attempting to gain wealth that are being plunged into ruin and destruction, but also other people whose lives are destroyed by a person’s pursuit of money. There is collateral damage to other people. Remember the movie You’ve Got Mail with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks? The big, wealthy Fox Books company—owned by Tom Hanks’ character Joe Fox—was putting small, independent bookstores out of business. When Fox Books built a new store across the street, Meg Ryan’s character, Kathleen, was worried and terrified that her bookstore would be next. Of course, the movie makes the destruction of Kathleen’s entire livelihood—and the livelihoods of her employees—okay in the end by having Kathleen and Joe Fox hook up. So goes the imagination of Hollywood.

It’s a story that has played out over and over in the real world. Walmart has put more small business out of business than can be counted. The pursuit of wealth and more wealth by the wealthy destroys livelihoods and plunges people into ruin. All for the sake of the love of money and trying to get rich. When we aren’t careful, when getting rich is our goal, such pursuits do ruin people and destroy community.

The love of money is idolatry. Idolatry is a sneaky kind of sin. It’s grip on us can be subtle, but it’s always choking. Caring too much about money, possessions, wealth, or property is idolatry. Idolatry doesn’t only come in the form of a love of money, it can be a love of any thing that gets in the way of our freedom to live fully as baptized people.

Idolatry can even sneak its way into the church. Every congregation I’ve served has struggled over what kind of ministry to allow in their building. On one hand, the congregation wants to protect and maintain its property. On the other hand, the congregation wants to use their property to do life-changing ministry. One of my previous congregations is arguing over their preschool program, of all things. On one side, some are complaining that it doesn’t make any money for the church while the church is subsidizing the use of space. On the other side of the argument, some congregation members are saying, Are you kidding? You’re worried about how many paper towels they’re using? This is ministry with kids!

Rev. Rudy Rasmus is a co-pastor at Saint John’s Downtown Church in Houston. I like what he once said about his church: “When we get new carpet, the first thing we do is eat on it. It’s hard for that carpet to become an idol when someone spills a plate of biscuits and gravy on it.” It’s important for every congregation to take care of its property. Yet, as Rudy Rasmus noted, if people care so much about the carpet that they don’t want to do ministry because it might get dirty or look used… we need to consider what’s really important in light of our baptism.

Museums are meant to look immaculate. Church buildings are meant to look lived in.

Idolatry can show up in many forms. When does patriotism blind us of our responsibility to love and care for people from other nations? When does the traveling sports team take precedence over our worship of and service to God? When does our worry about having enough money strangle our ability to give generously?

These questions don’t come with easy or simple answers. They require us to think and consider. One of my HazMat professors once said, “The difference between a poison and a remedy is dosage. I could kill you with sugar” (Prof. Dan Murray). It’s a point that runs kind of along the same lines as the difference between idolatry and faithfulness. At what point, in our caring for things, do those things become poisonous to our Christian life? That’s the matter to which we have to give careful and thoughtful evaluation. Different people are going to draw that line in different place. Nothing should come before God. God wants us to love God and love people. Anything that gets in the way of those two things is idolatry.

One misconception that I want to clear up about this text is that this is not condemnation for being rich. Wealth, itself, is not condemned. Rather, it’s an improper attitude toward wealth that’s problematic. Those who have wealth are instructed to make proper use of it. “Tell people who are rich at this time not to become egotistical and not to place their hope on their finances, which are uncertain. Instead, they need to hope in God, who richly provides everything for our enjoyment. Tell them to do good, to be rich in the good things they do, to be generous, and to share with others. When they do these things, they will save a treasure for themselves that is a good foundation for the future. That way they can take hold of what is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:17-19 CEB).

When those who are wealthy learn to give and give generously, then any love of money gets cut off at the root. Whether we’re wealthy or not, our pursuit as the baptized should be righteousness, holy living, faithfulness, love, endurance, and gentleness. All of these things have their root in love for God and love for other people. When we compete in the good fight of faith, when we fight the good fight, by fleeing from a way of life that is destructive to ourselves and to others, that’s when we begin to grab hold of the eternal life to which we were called. It takes dedication and hard work, like an athlete training their body. But eternal life—life that really is life—is what we’re training ourselves to experience in this world and in the world to come.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Paul’s Story | Proper 19

1 Timothy 1:12-17

12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength because he considered me faithful. So he appointed me to ministry 13 even though I used to speak against him, attack his people, and I was proud. But I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and without faith. 14 Our Lord’s favor poured all over me along with the faithfulness and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 This saying is reliable and deserves full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I’m the biggest sinner of all. 16 But this is why I was shown mercy, so that Christ Jesus could show his endless patience to me first of all. So I’m an example for those who are going to believe in him for eternal life. 17 Now to the king of the ages, to the immortal, invisible, and only God, may honor and glory be given to him forever and always! Amen.  (CEB)

Paul’s Story

This is, in brief, Paul’s story. It’s very personal and, in it, he reveals both his sin and his experience of God’s overflowing grace. Paul conveys to Timothy his own reflections on how and why God called him into ministry. Paul used to speak against Jesus Christ, attack Christian people, and acted violently and pridefully. Yet, even in his ignorance and unbelief, he received mercy from God. Paul, a sinner—who calls himself the worst of them all—received mercy. He tells Timothy that his story can serve as an example of the patience of Jesus Christ, and for those who will yet believe in Jesus Christ. If Jesus can show mercy to Saul of Tarsus, then we can be assured that the rest of us sinners can receive God’s mercy, too.

In our Tuesday morning Bible study, the question was asked about whether or not we would believe it if someone we knew to be a rather horrible person suddenly said they’d seen the light and claimed a conversion experience. I don’t think we quite came to a conclusion in the study, but I think we’d know the truth of the person’s conversion claim by their words and actions following their experience of God’s mercy. After all, a tree is known by its fruit (c.f. Matthew 12:33; Luke 6:43-44; also Matthew 3:10, 7:17-19; Luke 3:9). Our faith is shown by our actions (c.f. James 2:18-26). So, much like Paul’s experience of the mercy of Jesus Christ, I’d expect that we’d begin to see some recognizable changes in the person.

Do you remember Paul’s conversion story? It begins in Acts 7 when Stephen was stoned to death by the Jerusalem Council. The people who murdered Stephen placed their coats in the care of Saul (c.f. Acts 7:58). Saul approved of Stephen’s murder (Acts 8:1), and he began to wreak havoc on the church by entering house after house to drag women and men off to prison because of their belief in Jesus Christ (c.f. Acts 8:3).

Ironically, Saul’s harassment of the church forced the Christians to scatter, which had the opposite effect Saul and the Jerusalem Council wanted. The Christians preached the good news of Jesus Christ everywhere they went. Saul went to the High Priest and obtained letters that granted him permission to arrest and take to Jerusalem anyone in Damascus whom he found that belonged to the Way, as the early church was described.

During his journey to Damascus, light from heaven surrounded him, and he fell to the ground. He heard a voice say, “Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?” (Acts 9:4 CEB). The speaker of that voice identified himself as Jesus, and told Saul to go into the city where he’d be told what to do.

The others who were traveling with Saul stood there speechless. They heard the voice, but they didn’t see anyone. They picked Saul up from the ground, but he couldn’t see. For three days, Saul was blind. He didn’t eat. He didn’t drink. He only saw a vision of a man named Ananias laying hands on him to restore his sight.

Meanwhile, Ananias was less than thrilled about what Jesus instructed him to do. Everyone had heard about Saul. Everyone knew how dangerous he was. Everyone knew what he’d done to the church in Jerusalem, and everyone knew he’d arrived in Damascus—with the authority of the chief priests—to do the same thing to believers there. But the Lord told Ananias, “Go!” (Acts 9:15). So, Ananias walked into a potential Lion’s Den, laid his hands on Saul of Tarsus, and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord sent me—Jesus, who appeared to you on the way as you were coming here. He sent me so that you could see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:17 CEB).

Flakes fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again, and Saul was baptized. From there, Saul went on to become one of the foremost evangelists and theologians of the church. He carried the name of Jesus “before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites” just as it had been declared (Acts 9:15 CEB).

But conversion is often a slow process of continuing to make mistakes and learning from those mistakes. Saul didn’t suddenly emerge from Damascus as the towering figure of Paul that we all think of when we think about him. No! As Dr. Mike Rynkiewich pointed out to me, look what Saul did in Damascus. We’re told he immediately started preaching about Jesus in the synagogues, declaring the truth of Jesus as God’s Son, and arguing his way across the city. He confused the Jews in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ.

Saul had this conversion experience where he changed his mind, but his heart was lagging behind in that change. He had come to know the truth about Jesus as God’s Son, but he didn’t yet understand how to love people as Jesus teaches his followers to do. Instead, Saul went around beating people over the head with his proofs and arguing people under the table.

In other words, he was still being an arrogant jerk. He was still very much the same Saul he’d been before his conversion. The only difference was the focus of his mission. Instead of beating up Christians and hauling them off to prison for being wrong, he was arguing Jews into submission for being wrong. Saul was right. He knew he was right. And by golly, if you dared to tangle with him, then you were going to find out just how right he was and how wrong you were. I imagine Saul walking around Damascus with a shirt that said, “COME AT ME, BRUH!” and a sign that said, “DECONSTRUCTION ZONE.”

Saul was so potent and abrasive in his arguments that he caused the Jews in Damascus to hatch a plot to kill him! The Jews were watching the city gates—‘cause they weren’t gonna let this punk go—so Saul had to be lowered through an opening in the city wall in a basket.

Saul escaped to Jerusalem and tried to join the disciples there, but they were all so afraid of him that they wouldn’t let him in. Saul was so bad, he’d caused such damage to the church in Jerusalem, that the disciples didn’t believe that Saul was really a disciple! It took Barnabas to vouch for Saul and speak on his behalf to even get Saul in the door.

But Saul was still going around Jerusalem getting into debates and arguing people under the table. I mean, the guy might have had a conversion experience, but he didn’t learn quickly. The Jews in Jerusalem were out to kill Saul, too (big surprise!) so the church had to shuffle him out of the city. They escorted him to the harbor at Caesarea and sent him home to Tarsus. What’s hilarious is that, after Saul leaves the region, the very next verse says, “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace” (Acts 9:31a CEB).

I mean, can you imagine this scenario? It’s like when Mom and Dad finally get the kids to sleep after grandma and grandpa got them all sugared up on soft drinks and candy, and they sit in the couch, put their feet up on the coffee table and both heave deep sighs of relief. Thank goodness that’s over!

Saul told Timothy, “I was proud” (1 Timothy 12:13 CEB). Other translations render that same word as violent, insulting, injurious, arrogant. Paul confesses that his sin was pride—the kind of arrogance that leads to violence, insult, and injury of others.

This is Paul’s story, and it’s important to remember that this is Paul’s story. Paul’s story is not everyone’s story. Other people’s encounters with God’s mercy and grace are just as potent and significant even as they are different. Paul needed to be set free from his acts of violent persecution, pride, and unbelief.

Martin Luther used Paul’s confession of arrogance, among other texts, to describe a courtroom drama where a man stands before God as the judge and attempts to attain his own salvation. Instead, the man is undone by God who reveals the man’s impotence and pride. But, instead of punishing the man, God extends mercy and declares the arrogant sinner to be righteous in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. The root sin of humanity is arrogance.

Yet, this view is very one-sided. Theologians like Valerie Saiving have called our attention to the truth that some “forms of sin…have a quality which can never be encompassed by such terms as ‘pride’ and ‘will to power.’ They are better suggested by such terms as…distractibility, and diffuseness…dependence on others for one’s self-definition; tolerance at the expense of standards of excellence…in short, underdevelopment or negation of the Self” (Feasting on the Word Year C, vol.4, 64).

Paul’s story illustrates how God’s mercy in Jesus Christ exposes and condemns the violence of the oppressor. For Saul, that violence was expressed outward. For many people that violence is expressed inward toward the self. It can be active or passive violence: accepting abuse from others, self-harming behaviors, or the squandering or dissipating of oneself for others. Women and men can both have self-effacing tendencies.

I know that’s one of my own struggles. I don’t like conflict. I don’t like it when the boat rocks. And I have a tendency to sacrifice my own desires and needs just to make sure there’s no turbulence shaking the appearance of my exterior placidity. That’s my default. And it can be downright self-harming, because inside, I’m neither placid nor peaceful. My self-effacing tendencies lead to anger toward myself and bitterness toward others.

Remember Martha in Luke 10:38-42? Stephanie Smith notes that “Martha dissipated herself when she accepted the social role as hostess and denied her true need. Jesus exposed her unbelief as it was expressed in her worry and distraction and challenged her to choose ‘the better part,’ even when it defied social norms” (Feasting on the Word Year C, vol.4, 64). Jesus called Martha to stop her activity because, unlike Paul, it was her activity that was an act of violence against herself. Martha’s activity was a denial of her need for the sake of the other. Such self-denial can become the very bars of a person’s prison cell that disallow their true need from ever being met. That is absolutely destructive.

While Saul experienced salvation as a move from active violence to passive acceptance, for many people, passive acceptance is the very means of their destruction. Abnegation, in that sense, is not virtuous, but violence. Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to his message. “By contrast, Martha was preoccupied with getting everything ready for their meal. So Martha came to him and said, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me.’ The Lord answered, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.’” (Luke 10:40-42 CEB).

Saul’s story serves as an example of how even the worst of sinners can experience God’s mercy and learn to become disciples of Jesus Christ. But it is not a one-size-fits-all story. We each experience God’s mercy in different ways because we, ourselves, are each different from the other. Yet, God’s mercy can free us of our pride and our violence, whether it’s directed outward or inward.

“This saying is reliable and deserves full acceptance: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’” (1 Timothy 1:15 CEB). How that salvation works its way through our lives: how it changes our minds, how it changes our hearts, how it changes our perceptions of others, and how it changes our perceptions of our self, will be different for each of us as it takes effect. We can have confidence that God will be patient with us. So, we should be patient with others as God is patient with others. Because we’re all on this journey together.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

The Potter | Proper 18

Jeremiah 18:1-11

1 Jeremiah received the LORD’s word: 2 Go down to the potter’s house, and I’ll give you instructions about what to do there. 3 So I went down to the potter’s house; he was working on the potter’s wheel. 4 But the piece he was making was flawed while still in his hands, so the potter started on another, as seemed best to him. 5 Then the LORD’s word came to me: 6 House of Israel, can’t I deal with you like this potter, declares the LORD? Like clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in mine, house of Israel! 7 At any time I may announce that I will dig up, pull down, and destroy a nation or kingdom; 8 but if that nation I warned turns from its evil, then I’ll relent and not carry out the harm I intended for it. 9 At the same time, I may announce that I will build and plant a nation or kingdom; 10 but if that nation displeases and disobeys me, then I’ll relent and not carry out the good I intended for it. 11 Now say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem: This is what the LORD says: I am a potter preparing a disaster for you; I’m working out a plan against you. So each one of you, turn from your evil ways; reform your ways and your actions. (CEB)

The Potter

My only experience with doing pottery was in shop class at Oak Hill Middle School where I made this dreadful blue blob. I think I tried to make a lid for it, but it didn’t work out at all. I mean, my dreadful blob works to hold stuff, but it’s not exactly a work of art. It’s not pretty. And, it’s only useful if you can stand the dreadful sight of it on your nightstand or coffee table. Yet, it does have one remarkable property. It’s so dreadful and blobby that, as a candy jar, it will actually keep kids out of your stash.

IMG_20190908_114412

Sometimes, the word of the Lord needs to be seen in order to understand it properly. Jeremiah does what many other prophets have done before him. God tells him to go somewhere, so he obediently goes. What Jeremiah sees is a potter bent over his potter’s wheel working a lump of clay. But something went wrong with the piece while the potter worked it. So, the potter lumped it together and started over on a new piece.

What Jeremiah sees becomes an illustration for the Lord’s word. House of Israel, can’t I deal with you like this potter, declares the LORD? Like clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in mine, house of Israel!” (Jeremiah 18:6 CEB).

As much as we might like the song, Change My Heart, O God, where we sing, “You are the potter. I am the clay. Mold me and make me. This is what I pray,” God’s word to Jeremiah is about the community of faith. Yet, while God’s word is focused on the community, it’s fair to say that any word about a community is also a word about the individuals who make up that community. In fact, when God calls for repentance, God says, “So each one of you, turn from your evil ways; reform your ways and your actions” (Jeremiah 18:11 CEB).

This is, very clearly, a call for the community of faith to repent. The context behind the oracle Jeremiah speaks is the covenant between God and the people of Judah and the faithfulness of the nation to that covenant. The political leadership of Judah knew there was the potential for trouble. Egypt and Babylon were the rising powers in the region. King Jehoiakim switched his allegiance back and forth between Egypt and Babylon. He killed the prophet Uriah and burned the scroll Jeremiah had written that contained the oracles of God.

While the king, the court, and the people were arguing politics, Jeremiah and the prophets reminded the people that a king still reigned. The allegiance of the people should be to God, Israel’s King, rather than other nations. By flirting with political alliances instead of choosing faithfulness to the covenant, Judah was not following through with their end of the covenant.

God warns the people, through Jeremiah, that disaster looms just over the horizon. The Babylonians are out there. And if Judah doesn’t shape up, they’ll come, the people will be taken captive, and Jerusalem will be destroyed. Maybe the leaders of the community were convinced that the blessing of God upon them was their entitlement rather than a gift. Maybe the leaders didn’t believe religious nonsense would do any good in the real world. Whatever their reasons for ignoring Jeremiah and the other prophets, the nation of Judah would learn a hard lesson through disastrous defeat and exile.

The people of Judah later understood their exile as a consequence of their own sin. They believed that the destruction of their nation happened because they didn’t abide by the covenant. In one sense, that’s kind of refreshing. When people admit they were wrong and, as a consequence of their past failures, determine to do what’s right. That’s refreshing. To some extent, it could be viewed as a sign of spiritual maturity.

There are people in the world—we all know someone—who are never wrong, who never make mistakes, and are never at fault. At least, according to them. They’ll never admit a mistake (even when the National Weather Service says they were wrong).

It’s easy for us to sit in judgment of Judah and think, Well, why didn’t they just choose faithfulness to God? But we do this, too. We Americans are often guilty of the very same activity. We might even feel that our blessing by God as a nation is an entitlement. Whether we identify as a Republican, a Democrat, a Libertarian, or something else, some of us are guilty of putting more faith in our political parties than in adhering to God’s requirements.

In fact, what American Christians often do is substitute one or the other political party’s agendas for God’s requirements. We think that our party of choice is the so-called “Christian vote” while voting for the other party is patently “unchristian.” Somehow, we get our religious and our political values crossed and—somehow—we begin to think they’re the same thing.

Let me be clear. No vote for any political party or any individual representing a political party is the so-called “Christian vote.” We should each vote our conscience, yes, but we don’t get to compare our vote to a vote for Jesus. The politics of Jesus are beyond the ability—let alone the will—of any current political party to meet. The values of Jesus and the dominion of God are in direct conflict with some parts of every political party’s values and policies. Belong to a political party if you want to. There’s probably nothing wrong with that. Vote for your party of choice. There’s nothing wrong with that. But there is something wrong when we walk away from whatever vote we cast feeling morally superior. When we do that, we have supplanted God’s values with the bent values of human politics. And they aren’t the same thing.

You’ll hear me preach against policies and policy makers of both major political parties. And, I know that some people don’t like that. I’ve even been told by a member of our congregation that pastors should stay out of politics. If anyone can find a Biblical precedent for it, I’ll be glad to stop. But Jeremiah and the other prophets were preaching against the King and the King’s policies, as did prophets throughout the Old and New Testaments (i.e. John the Baptist).

Jeremiah wanted the nation of Judah to stop worrying about politics, about which alliance to make with which nation, and just be faithful to God. Focus on what’s truly important. What if the people of the church in America were to do the same? What if, at the beginning and at the end of every day, we simply got to the business of living faithfully to God by living out the very things God requires of us?

God requires a lot. Not just a small part, but everything. Faithfulness requires our whole selves. The reason Jesus says his yoke is easy and his burden is light is because his yoke and burden are love. But love isn’t some small thing. It takes all that we have and all that we are to really love, and to love well. I believe I’ve said in a previous sermon that some political policies might be perfectly legal, but they aren’t loving. If they aren’t loving, then those policies are out of alignment with God’s values and should be opposed even by members of the political party that put it forth. Standing up for what is right, and standing against what is wrong regardless of political affiliation: that’s Christian faithfulness.

Jeremiah’s oracle of the potter is loaded with Deuteronomic thought, which states that when we sin, we suffer, and when we suffer, it’s because we’ve sinned. Judah has failed to keep the covenant, so Judah will experience disaster.

Yet, there are other voices in the Scriptures that sing to a beat counter to Deuteronomic thought. Job was blameless, yet he suffered unimaginable loss. The Hebrew people became slaves in Egypt, not because of their sin, but because a new Pharaoh forgot Joseph and feared the Hebrews’ numbers. God delivered the Israelites from slavery not because the people were righteous, but because God is righteous.

The refugees from Syria and central American nations aren’t suffering because they’re “Bad hombres” or because they deserve it. Veterans of American wars don’t become homeless because they deserve it.

Bad things happen in the world because the world is fallen and evil reigns. The Scriptures describe “the god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4 CEB) and “the prince of this world” (John 12:31 KJV) as Satan, the one who opposes God. Our call as Christian people is to resist the evil that reigns, to align ourselves with God and God’s values, to live love in our every day, and to rely upon God’s grace to give us strength to do so.

Throughout the Old and the New Testaments, we have example after example that show us how God gives us what we need rather than what we deserve. God’s grace abounds even when we fail at faithfulness. We even state in our Communion liturgy that “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. That proves God’s love for us.”

There is something beautiful about this analogy with the clay. When we don’t turn out quite the way God wants, God can gracefully reshape us into the vessel we’re supposed to be. Yet, questions we might ask ourselves are, are we still malleable enough to repent? Are we still soft clay, or have we hardened our hearts? If you read further into Jeremiah 19, the once soft clay is hardened into a clay pot that Jeremiah smashes as a sign of God’s judgment. Will we allow God to lovingly reshape us in the image of Divine love?

The message that John the Baptist preached during his ministry was, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” (Matthew 3:2 CEB). The message which Jesus preached at the beginning of his ministry was, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” (Matthew 4:17 CEB).

Even with the word of the disaster preached and proclaimed by God’s prophet, Jeremiah, there is a thread of hope for the people of Judah. As much as God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, it turns out that God’s plans are not fixed, determined, and unchangeable. God can change God’s mind. Human actions of either sin or repentance from sin can influence God. God takes all things into account.

God’s people are called to repent, and we have the opportunity to do so every day. God gives us grace. In the New Testament, Jesus calls us to repent because God’s realm and dominion is near. The full reign of God is near.

In what ways do we need to repent so that the reign of God might show forth in us? Through repentance, God can reshape dreadful blobs into useful vessels.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

IMG_20190908_114412

Like Family | Proper 17

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

1 Keep loving each other like family. 2 Don’t neglect to open up your homes to guests, because by doing this some have been hosts to angels without knowing it. 3 Remember prisoners as if you were in prison with them, and people who are mistreated as if you were in their place. 4 Marriage must be honored in every respect, with no cheating on the relationship, because God will judge the sexually immoral person and the person who commits adultery. 5 Your way of life should be free from the love of money, and you should be content with what you have. After all, he has said, I will never leave you or abandon you. 6 This is why we can confidently say,

The Lord is my helper,

and I won’t be afraid.

What can people do to me?

7 Remember your leaders who spoke God’s word to you. Imitate their faith as you consider the way their lives turned out. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever!

15 So let’s continually offer up a sacrifice of praise through him, which is the fruit from our lips that confess his name. 16 Don’t forget to do good and to share what you have because God is pleased with these kinds of sacrifices. (CEB)

Like Family

The final chapter of Hebrews might as well be labeled Discipleship 101. If we were to give the class a title, it might be: It All Starts with Love. In fact, in Greek, the word in the first sentence is (φιλαδελφία) philadelphia. You may have heard of it before. There’s a city in Pennsylvania that houses a broken bell that goes by that name. Rocky Balboa was from there, too, if you need a more recent cultural reference from the last five decades.

There was also an ancient city in the Decapolis called Philadelphia, which is now called Amman, Jordan. (I’ve been to that one. I’ve even eaten at the Hard Rock Café in that one. But I haven’t been to the one in Pennsylvania).

The word philadelphia is a compound word of philos, which means love or beloved, and adelphos, which means brother or a person viewed as a sibling. Philadelphia is brotherly love, familial love, love between people who know each other well.

Philadelphia defines a kind of love between people within a certain delineation, whether it’s within a family, close friendships, or a religious community. So, when the author of Hebrews tells us to keep loving each other like family, that word philadelphia is pointing to those within the church. We Christians are to love each other and commit ourselves to loving each other continually. Yes, there will be breakdowns and disagreements, arguments and divisions over certain issues, but those matters are not an excuse for us to let our love for each other falter or fail.

Our congregation members do a fairly good job of loving each other like family. There’s always room for improvement, but we do pretty well. We keep each other uplifted in prayer through an email prayer chain. We really like to get together to eat, whether it’s hosting a dinner for grieving families, enjoying one another’s fellowship at a pig roast, breakfasting together on Saturdays, breaking bread for a mission meal, a fish fry, a Wonderful Wednesday, or a Terrific Tuesday.

I think we could easily add a Fried Chicken Friday to that list. We even have a meal at a Sunday School seminar series. You all let Dr. Mike and me lecture to you because you get to eat. I think some of us would sit through anything as long as we got to eat.

But eating together is only one part of how we love each other like family. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard of church members giving other church members rides to the hospital or to doctor appointments. You write cards and letters to shut-ins. You visit people in the hospitals and nursing homes. You genuinely care about the people sitting around you in this room.

“Keep loving each other like family” (Hebrews 13:1 CEB).

I know I’ve already mentioned some Greek language stuff—and this sermon is just getting started—but I have a reason for doing so. In verse 2, there is one more Greek word that we need to examine. The Common English Bible translates the beginning of verse 2 as “Don’t neglect to open up your homes to guests.” The New Revised Standard Version translates it as “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.”

The word in question is another one of those compound words, (φιλοξενίας) philoxenias. You already know that philos means love. Xenia, in Greek, is hospitality, and it’s derived from the word xenos, which is foreigner, alien, stranger. A love for hospitality—philoxenias—is what we are required to display on behalf of foreigners, strangers, and aliens—xenos. So, we’re told by the author of Hebrews that our mutual love—our love as family—must extend beyond our inner circle to those who are strangers, foreigners, and aliens. We’re reminded not to neglect a love for hospitality. This is a love that aims us outward, beyond our communal family.

By showing such love to foreigners, aliens, and strangers, we might well serve as host to God’s messengers without even realizing it. There are stories of such encounters throughout the Biblical narrative: Abraham in Genesis 18, Lot in Genesis 19, Gideon in Judges 6, Samson’s mother in Judges 13, and, if you have a Bible that includes the Apocrypha, you can read about the angels Tobit and Tobias encounter. Hospitality that is given without a hope or expectation of a return is faithful behavior, and we might not realize just who we’re extending our love of others to when we offer it.

When we host these incredible little kids at the nursery school, do we realize how beautiful the love and care our staff pours into those children really is? When we host kids at Thrive, do we fully grasp how profoundly our hospitality as a church is affecting them? Some of them come from situations that we, in our comfort, can scarcely imagine. Hospitality—and not mere hospitality, but a love for hospitality—philoxenias is exactly what Disciples of Jesus Christ are required to offer.

And, I almost hesitate to use the word required because when you, personally, see the results of these ministries in the lives of Mount Vernon children, it doesn’t feel like an obligation at all. A love of hospitality, itself, becomes a source of joy that fills and nourishes us as well as those whom we host.

The next verse, verse 3, shows us how far this love for showing hospitality must be willing to go. In today’s world, whenever something bad happens, we always hear about how “thoughts and prayers” are with those afflicted by the tragedy of the day. But the author of Hebrews lets us know that “thoughts and prayers” alone don’t cut the mustard. Instead, the writer is clear that we need to ask ourselves how we might meet the immediate, physical needs of those for whom we’re praying and thinking. For the author of Hebrews, it gets down to very flesh-and-blood stuff.

We’re told to remember prisoners as if we are in prison with them, and to remember those who are tortured as if we, ourselves, are being tortured. There is something co-carnational even syn-carnational about those who make up the body of Christ Jesus and those outside of it. (And yes, I just made those words up). Remember, being a Christian is about showing love for those inside and for those outside the Christian community. The implication is that, in all of humanity, we must see ourselves in others and others in ourselves. Each member of the body that makes up the whole human race is not only a brother or sister, but our very own flesh and blood. When they hurt, we hurt—whether we feel it directly or not. When one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers.

One question we might consider is how are Christians still failing to act not only as brothers and sisters but as one, singular, undivided body?

One thing that got me in recent headlines is how some big names on the Christian Right—leaders who call themselves Evangelicals, those who proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ—are all up in arms because the president has been using the Lord’s name in vain at campaign rallies. These same leaders didn’t say anything about the “Send her back!” chant at the rallies, and I’ve barely heard a word from these same leaders about the profound mistreatment of human beings on our southern border, or the resident aliens in our midst. But they sure got riled up because of what some of them described as the president’s blasphemy because he said a certain word.

And I’m not criticizing the President by mentioning this, I’m criticizing these leaders of the church.

When we care more about the illusion of propriety than we care about members of our human family whom we must view as our own flesh and blood… it takes a lot of theological blindness to do that. It takes a lot of theological blindness for a person to identify themselves as a follower of Jesus Christ and be fine with the violation and mass incarceration of refugees and asylum seekers on our border. It takes a lot of theological blindness to call oneself a Christian and be silent about the evils of white supremacy and racist ideology. It takes a lot of theological blindness to put country or politics ahead of any part of our human family.

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to bring God’s kingdom, God’s dominion, God’s rule and reign. If that’s what we’re praying for—if that’s what we really desire—then we cannot, at the same time, support policies or ideologies that are antithetical to God’s values. We will find ourselves on the wrong side of judgment if we do.

Speaking of judgment, the author of Hebrews reminds us that even the most intimate parts of our lives are connected to the rule of love and the reign of God. Verse four turns to the subject of marriage and covenant within our communities. “Marriage must be honored in every respect, with no cheating on the relationship, because God will judge the sexually immoral person and the person who commits adultery” (Hebrews 13:4 CEB). If we make a vow before God, we’d better keep it. After all, if we can’t honor our commitment to our own spouse whom we see every day, how can we honor our commitment to God whom we can’t see? How can we profess to love God if we cheat on our spouse and dishonor our marriage?

The love of money, too, is mentioned. Paul described the love of money as the root of all kinds of evil (c.f. 1 Timothy 6:10). When our love is attached to the wrong things—or to things instead of people—then we’re going to make decisions that benefit our acquisition of money over and against the right kind of care, love, and hospitality for other members of our human family.

We don’t need to put our love or our trust in money because, as Deuteronomy 31:6 states, God will never leave us or forsake us. We can sing with the Psalmist, “The LORD is for me—I won’t be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” (Psalm 118:6 CEB). We can and should put our confidence in the Lord and find satisfaction in God’s providence for us. That doesn’t mean we aren’t allowed to seek a better life for ourselves, but it does mean that money and wealth are not our end goals. Discipleship 101 teaches us that love is our end and our beginning.

And, as if the author of Hebrews knows that these words aren’t going to be pleasing to some people’s ears, he reminds us to remember our leaders and those who preach the word of God to us. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. This is not the place where I get to say my congregation, Hey, look at me! Listen to me! Look how great a Christian I am! I’m all too familiar with my own failings.

Nope. This is where I can only hope that my dedication to God’s realm, the way I love, and the way I live is somehow acceptable to God and a faithful example to the church I serve. Jesus Christ doesn’t change with time, nor do God’s values change. Jesus is the same now and will be the same always. Love matters. How we worship and praise God, matters.

Verses 15 and 16 connect our praise of God with our lips, and our worship of God in the way we love by doing good deeds. That has been a theme in the Scripture texts over the last several weeks. We cannot separate word from action. We can’t forget to love those inside the community, and we can’t forget to love those outside the community. The Lord is over every aspect of our lives. Family love, love for hospitality, faithfulness, contentment with what we have, humility to remember our leaders and learn from them: these are the lessons covered in Discipleship 101.

So, if you had to give yourself a grade today, what would it be?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

The Present Time | Proper 15

Luke 12:49-56

49 “I came to cast fire upon the earth. How I wish that it was already ablaze! 50 I have a baptism I must experience. How I am distressed until it’s completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I have come instead to bring division. 52 From now on, a household of five will be divided—three against two and two against three. 53 Father will square off against son and son against father; mother against daughter and daughter against mother; and mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

54 Jesus also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud forming in the west, you immediately say, ‘It’s going to rain.’ And indeed it does. 55 And when a south wind blows, you say, ‘A heat wave is coming.’ And it does. 56 Hypocrites! You know how to interpret conditions on earth and in the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret the present time? (CEB)

The Present Time

Last Sunday, the text we read from the Prophet Isaiah was a difficult one to hear. If you got here this morning and noticed that we’re reading from the Gospel of Luke and thought, thank goodness we get to hear about Jesus this Sunday… Sorry. This, also, is a difficult text. To us, these words of Jesus might even seem out character. “I came to bring fire…”? “I have come instead to bring division…”? “…a household… will be divided…”? And, Jesus resorts to name calling when he addresses us as “hypocrites”?

This sounds like grumpy Jesus. I didn’t even know there was a grumpy Jesus. I mean, isn’t Jesus supposed to be the Prince of Peace? How can he say that he came to bring division? It’s like Jesus got up on the wrong side of the bed, or stubbed his toe, or ate a bad fig for breakfast. It would be nice if we could attribute these harsh words of Jesus to a bad mood, or a mild heat stroke, and brush them off as something he didn’t really mean, but I think it’s probably better to take his words seriously.

Jesus certainly is the Prince of Peace. Let’s restate and affirm that much. Zechariah sang that, “Because of our God’s deep compassion, the dawn from heaven will break upon us, to give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide us on the path of peace” (Luke 1:78-79 CEB). The angels sang the proclamation of Jesus’ birth by saying, “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors” (Luke 2:14 CEB). Throughout the Gospel story, Jesus offers peace to those whom he heals, and he talks about peace in his parables. At the end of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus offers peace to his disciples in the form of a benediction (c.f. 24:36).

Yet, there is a discordant strain that goes along with the peace of Jesus. When Jesus was dedicated at the temple, Simeon took the infant Jesus into his arms, blessed Mary and Joseph, and said to Mary, “This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your innermost being too” (Luke 2:34-35 CEB).

Hear that again. On his eighth day of life, it’s revealed that Jesus would be the cause of the falling and rising of many, that he would be a sign that generates opposition, and that opposition will reveal people’s inner thoughts.

I don’t know about you, but the thought that someone could reveal my inner thoughts is a little scary. I’m not always a very nice person inside my head, and I don’t really want that to be known. (So, just forget that I said that, okay?). But, isn’t it our own actions that reveal our inner thoughts? Isn’t it also our own spoken words that reveal our inner thoughts? Aren’t we the ones who reveal our inner thoughts by what we say and do in relation to the teaching of Jesus?

The first words of Jesus in our text are, “I came to cast fire upon the earth. How I wish that it was already ablaze! I have a baptism I must experience. How I am distressed until it’s completed!” (Luke 12:49-50 CEB). In the original Greek, it comes across as more emphatic, because the first words of the first two sentences are fire and baptism: “Fire, I came to throw on the earth…” “[A] Baptism I now have to be baptized…”

Fire and baptism point to Jesus’ mission. Remember when John the Baptizer told people, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming. I’m not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out” (Luke 3:16-17 CEB).

Fire, in Luke 12 and in Luke 3, is a multifaceted metaphor. In one sense it clearly points to the work of the Holy Spirit that burns in our hearts and fires us up to live according to the example and teaching of Jesus Christ. It’s a fire that refines and purifies, that burns away the chaff. It’s also a fire that implies judgment. There is a separation of wheat from chaff, and the chaff is burned with unquenchable fire. Now, that unquenchable fire might mean what most people think it means: that those who are “the chaff” will burn in hell forever.

But I don’t think we can so readily separate the fire that burns the chaff from the fire that purifies and ignites faithful courage. I lean more toward God’s grace. I think that unquenchable fire can also suggest that God doesn’t give up on any of us. God’s purifying fire doesn’t go out. Ever. As much time as we require in the metaphorical furnace, God’s got patience.

As for baptism, it means immersion. When Jesus says he has a baptism with which to be baptized, he’s saying that he’s immersed in God plan. He’s all in. The moment Jesus turns his face to go to Jerusalem 9:51, he knows that it will lead to his death. When Jesus says, “How I am distressed until it’s completed!” (Luke 12:50 CEB), he’s not talking about anxiety. Rather, it’s about that baptism; that full immersion and total commitment to the mission of God which Jesus came to accomplish. Suffering and death for the sake of the whole world is part of the baptism into which Jesus is fully and completely immersed.

But another part of that baptism, that immersion, that mission of God is reconciliation. Ironically, it’s this part of Jesus’ ministry that leads to division! It’s this part of Jesus’ ministry that causes us to reveal our inner thoughts. It’s this part of Jesus’ ministry that makes him a sign that we, ourselves, can oppose just as so many others have done before us.

And I know you might be thinking, how can peace and reconciliation bring division? Peace and reconciliation bring division when we… don’t… believe… other… people… deserve… it. Jesus taught parable after parable about this. The reconciliation of God to humankind, and of us to each other, brings division.

The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of our favorites. A son basically tells his father that he wishes he was dead, and he wants his inheritance now. So, the father being the generous person he is, gives his son the inheritance. The son squanders it and ends up so destitute that he decides to go back to his father to see if he can be hired on as a servant. And he’s practicing what he’s going to say as he makes the journey, how he’ll confess his sin and beg for a job. But his father had been waiting by the door, and the father sees his son a long way off and runs to him, embraces him, kisses him. The son tries to say the lines he’s been rehearsing, but the father is already calling for a celebration and feasting because this reconciliation—this peace that is made—is so beautiful. To the father, peace with his son is worth a party to end all parties.

It’s a beautiful parable, isn’t it? It has a powerful message, and it means there’s hope for everyone.

But the parable isn’t over yet. The elder son, the faithful son, the son who never disobeyed, the son we usually forget about in the story, the son who is but a footnote at the end; he comes in from the field where he’s been faithfully laboring for years. He finds this party going on, and he finds out that this celebration is for his worthless, no good, younger brother who abandoned his family and wasted their resources. And he’s furious. He refuses to even go inside. When the father goes out to him, the elder son tells his father that his younger brother doesn’t deserve it. He’s the good son, but he never even got a goat, let alone the fatted calf! His worthless younger brother should be dead to them all! And the father says that the younger son was, indeed, dead. But we should celebrate because now he’s alive again. He was lost, but we celebrate because now he’s found.

Peace and reconciliation sow the seeds for division. And we who are faithful churchgoers have a tendency to play the role of the elder son more than that of the younger son, the father, or the others who were celebrating that new-found peace in the household that evening.

In Matthew’s Gospel, the parable of the workers in the vineyard highlights the same seed of division. In the early morning a landowner hired workers for his vineyard. Then, he went out and found more workers at 9:00, noon, 3:00, and 5:00, and he hired them all. When it was time to pay, everyone got the same wage. Those who were hired early, who had worked all day long, grumbled about that. They thought they deserved more. But the landowner responded, “I want to give to this one who was hired last the same as I give to you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you resentful because I’m generous?” (Matthew 20:14-15 CEB).

Again, peace and reconciliation sow the seeds of division. Jesus’ parables suggest that the division Jesus proclaims is descriptive of what happens when the mission of God’s dominion is carried out, not prescriptive of what must happen. Because we don’t have to be resentful at God’s generosity. When others come into the dominion of God, it doesn’t mean there’s less room for us. We don’t have to react in fury like the elder brother, or grumble like the early workers.

But our reaction to reconciliation and peace between others reveals our inner thoughts. It reveals our preference for those who are like us. It reveals our judgmental jealousies, and our habit of deciding who is a deserving recipient of God’s grace, our charity, and even who should be allowed to step foot into our building, let alone join our holy community.

“I have come instead to bring division” (Luke 12:51 CEB).

The ministry of Jesus was a ministry that makes peace between long-standing enemies. Such a ministry will inevitably cause division when certain relationships depend on those well-delineated lines. We don’t always appreciate the great reversals of God’s dominion. We don’t always like it when those we deem undeserving end up receiving the abundant grace of God. When we oppose the kind of reconciliation that Jesus preaches, we’re revealing our preference for our self and people like us.

We serve a God who was willing to die for us. Seems to me that God gets to choose who receives God’s mercy and grace. If we can see and interpret signs in the clouds and in the wind that tell us what’s happening with the weather, why can’t we see that God’s Son came to make peace with all people; that peace is our mission because God’s dominion is, itself, defined and known by peace? Why would any of us resist that peacemaking instead of rejoicing over it?

Jesus has some harsh words for us. The Prince of Peace is going to make peace whether we’re on board with it or not. Jesus is fully immersed. He’s all in. What we need to reflect upon and examine within ourselves is, are we?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay